BUFFALO, N.Y. — Sabres defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen said he was happy to report for the start of training camp amid questions if he would have preferred being traded.
What Ristolainen couldn’t say Thursday was whether he’d feel the same way if he was on the Sabres’ roster come March, following the NHL’s trade deadline.
“I’m not a guesser, so let’s live in the moment and go day by day,” he said.
“I’ve been here six years and seen this business. You never know where you will be next week or next month,” Ristolainen added. “I’m here now, and I guess I will be here tomorrow, look at the schedule and ready to work.”
His future in Buffalo has been uncertain since Ristolainen expressed frustrations on several occasions since the end of last season, when Buffalo extended its playoff drought to eight years, the NHL’s longest active streak.
Saying he was mentally drained, the 24-year-old declined to say if he wanted to return when cleaning out his locker in April. In August, he referred to his situation as being “open” during an interview with Finland’s MTV Sports.
Ristolainen said Thursday he was merely expressing frustration over being on a team that’s yet to finish with a winning record.
“Things get rough and you get (angry),” he said. “I was just telling them that year wasn’t easy for me. And I wasn’t blaming anyone else than, you know, myself. I’m hard on myself, and that’s about it.”
Ristolainen declined to say whether he has asked to be traded.
Thursday was the first time Ristolainen has spoken to the media in Buffalo since the end of last season, and he was fully anticipating the questions. Upon stepping to the podium, he greeted reporters with a smile and said: “Can’t wait to see you guys.”
General manager Jason Botterill has sidestepped questions about Ristolainen this off-season by saying he’s had “positive conversations” with the player. In August, he said wasn’t surprised by the comments Ristolainen made to the television station.
On Monday, newly hired coach Ralph Krueger said he looked forward to working with Ristolainen.
“I know there’s a lot of potential there that’s still untapped, and it’s up to me and the coaches to find out what that is,” said Krueger, who took over after Phil Housley was fired following two seasons.
Ristolainen was Buffalo’s first-round pick in the 2013 draft and has been the team’s workhorse defenceman since opening his third season in 2015-16. He has led the team in averaging 24-plus minutes a game while topping 40 points in each of the past four seasons.
Ristolainen’s frustrations stem from being on a team that’s finished last overall in the NHL standings three times and is now on its fifth coach since he arrived in Buffalo.
“Losing is frustrating for sure, but the way I think, when you go through tough times and losing, I feel like it makes me and makes us stronger,” he said. “It makes us respect the win more. We’ve got to earn it.”
A knock against Ristolainen is his occasional defensive struggles, something he fully acknowledges.
“We all know I have to work on especially my defensive-zone game,” he said. “It’s not my strength, so let’s make it my strength.”
Should he remain in Buffalo, Ristolainen’s workload is likely to decrease given the defensive additions the Sabres made this off-season. Buffalo acquired Colin Miller in a trade with Vegas and Henri Jokiharju in a trade with Chicago.
The Sabres have 10 defencemen who played 30 or more NHL games last season, with seven being right-hand shots, including Ristolainen. Zach Bogosian (hip) and Lawrence Pilut (shoulder), however, are expected to miss the start of the season while recovering from surgery.
Ristolainen is entering the fourth year of what’s considered a reasonably priced six-year, $32.4 million contract.
He said he is excited to work with Krueger and liked Buffalo’s off-season additions, which included veteran forward Marcus Johansson.
“I think the team is even stronger than last year. And last year, when things clicked those couple of months we were on top of the league,” Ristolainen said, referring to the Sabres briefly leading the league following a 10-game winning streak in November. “That gives you a lot of hope.”